I had several ventures fall through early this year, and one of them was some work for a nationwide photo tuition company. Although initially disappointed, I feel now that it would have been a backwards step for me, as I’m actively trying to move away from the usual ways of teaching photography. The company runs ‘how to use your camera’ courses, plus other courses that are divided into genres like ‘landscape’, ‘portrait’, ‘nature’, ‘lighting’, etc. They’re all very technically based, and the landscape course – to give one example – shows quite fixed ideas about how landscape should be done.
I guess this is what people want, or perhaps they simply don’t know that’s there’s any other way to go about things. I’ve always resisted being categorised photographically, and one of my least favourite questions when I talk to new people is ‘what kind of photographer are you?’. It’s difficult for me to place my work squarely in any one genre so I usually resort to saying I’m a fine art photographer, which leaves them not much the wiser and me feeling somehow inadequate. When this question was put to me by the woman who talked to me about working for her company, I knew we were on different wavelengths.
I was reminded of this problem on reading an editorial in Black and White Photography magazine. Elizabeth Roberts (who edits the magazine) has an architect husband who’s involved in teaching, and who announced one morning that he ‘hated nouns’. On pursuing this further Roberts heard that when he asked his students to design a restaurant, for example, they came up with dull pre-conceived ideas and designs. However, if he asked them to design a space, part of which people might eat in, they were that much more likely to be imaginative and original. Roberts then suggests that the nouns we use in photography, like still-life, landscape, and so on, immediately conjure up a picture for us consisting of our pre-conceived ideas about what these things are.
Let’s take landscape as an example – we usually have an image in our heads of somewhere beautiful or awe-inspiring, with lots of colour and drama, sharp as possible all the way through, some foreground interest, leading lines drawing our eye into the picture, and that rosy golden light you get at dawn or dusk. Mention landscape, and the majority of us think of something we might see on a typical calendar. There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s a very limiting idea of what landscape is, or could be, and not likely to lead to work that stands out in any way.
I thought a lot about this a few years back when I was studying a landscape course. Traditional landscape photography didn’t inspire me – not because of anything lacking in the images (although having seen so many of these now, it takes something exceptional to excite me) but because it’s not a way that I like to work. I like to use a lot of softness and blur in my photos, I like abstracts, I don’t like using a tripod, I’m less into ‘big’ views than I am into close-ups, and I’m unlikely to get up at 4:00am and hike miles over moorland to catch the dawn light. None of this fits with the traditional concept of landscape photography.
I had to navigate my own way through the course, which thankfully turned out to be a lot less prescriptive than the course materials suggested. I looked at a lot of contemporary landscape photography, including a book called Shifting Horizons, on women’s landscape photography. A lot of what I saw left me, shall we say, under-whelmed, but it did open up my eyes to new and interesting approaches. One of the projects in the book was carried out by a woman who collected elastic bands from the pavements she passed along when doing the school run, which she then arranged on photographic paper to make photograms. I have to admit I still have problems thinking of this as landscape photography, but it did have the effect of stretching my mind in a positive way.
Language and words, when used poetically and with imagination, can expand our minds and emotions rather than contract them. However, when used to pin labels on things and sort them into categories, it’s easy for it to limit our thinking and end up trapping us in boxes formed of expectations and preconceptions.
But what if we threw away the rulebook – and the label – and asked ‘what if…..’ What if……landscapes could be blurred and soft? What if……they could be small and intimate? What if……..they were made of multiple exposures? What if…..they could be abstract? Or taken from above? Or urban scenes? Or things lying on the ground? Or telephone wires and sky? As Roberts goes on to say, not every picture taken with ‘what if..’ in mind is going to turn out original or exciting, but the attempt at something not bounded by preconceptions ‘might be the beginning of something – an opening up of ideas and ways of approach.’
I’ve used landscape as an example, but this is equally true of any other kind of photography. The moment we try to fit things into a category and label them, we begin to close down our ideas. The most interesting books, music, films, and photographs are usually the ones that it’s not easy to label – they transcend labels. Those bays in the library labelled ‘family sagas’, ‘crime’ or ‘thriller’ tell the reader that the books on the shelves will hold no surprises, that they can rely on a certain formula to be used in each of them.
Sometimes we want the sweet familiarity of a formulaic approach, just as it feels good now and again to eat junk food for a day – there’s something reassuring and comforting about it. But too much of it gets cloying and doing a bit of home cooking and changing some of the recipe ingredients, or perhaps throwing the recipe away altogether, is a lot more satisfying and exciting.
I still don’t know what kind of photographer I am – one who likes to cook, maybe? Here are a few of my attempts to change the recipe!